Africa: Why Funding African Research Requires a Systems Approach

26 October 2023
guest column

Dr. Janet Surum has made it her life’s goal to study how African learners can use psychological theories and principles to solve their daily life challenges on a continent where many out-of-school youth struggle to secure dignified work and unemployment and underemployment continue to climb. She does this through her teaching and research. But this has not been easy as an African educational psychologist and researcher.

”Undertaking my Ph.D research was not easy due to financial constraints. As the sole breadwinner, I had to juggle between funding my research and taking care of my family’s needs,” Surum says, who studied at Moi University in Kenya. Her plight is not surprising, more than 80% of locally-led education research in Africa is underfunded. And, o nly 3% of the world’s research output — particularly in the education space, is produced by scholars like Surum from the global south.

However, funding is not a silver bullet to address all of the challenges facing local education researchers. We need to recognize and address the series of interconnected and systemic issues that contribute to Surum’s predicament. Doing this will not only accelerate the impact of philanthropic funding but will also push forward evidence-based policies, programs and practices in the system.

Through our work supporting African researchers, we share four ways funders can use a systems approach to support local researchers like Surum.

  1. Prioritize Core Funding — Not Just Research Projects

Most research grants are program-focused, deadline-driven, often restricted in use, and highly fragmented with different reporting structures. This seldom allows for the time and flexibility needed to investigate the root cause of the problem. Researchers have shared that it also stifles experimentation and innovation — crucial components for systems change.

Core funding gives autonomy to those closest to the problem and know how best funds can be allocated most effectively. It fosters a trust-based environment, allowing funders and researchers to co-create accountability checkpoints from a shared perspective.

Where core funding is not feasible, many funders can explore ways to build flexibility and operational effectiveness, such as making realistic overhead allowances or building in co-creation phases with local researchers.

Support the Implementation of Research

Getting evidence-based education policies on paper is tremendously important, but evidence-informed implementation of the said policies and related programs is what ultimately results in impacting learners' lives.

Funders could serve as enablers, conveners and connectors, building bridges across the divide between evidence generation and uptake. For example, APHRC, an African research-based organization, convenes forums that bring together researchers and policymakers in the same room to understand, interpret and interrogate research findings. Funders can also support targeted communication and dissemination efforts at the national levels as well as with non-governmental and civil society organizations that often play a role in implementation with the government.

Lead with the Vision of the Researcher's Ecosystem

Systems necessitate centering funding on the vision of the research, rather than the funder's needs — and in so doing, it realigns the funding structure to where support is most needed. This requires a learning mindset that is comfortable with uncertainty, patience and even failure.

“The African research landscape is gradually taking shape. Our context is unique and the Global North needs to support goals that are aligned to our African dream and aspirations,” Surum says. When this approach is adopted, many context-driven and high-impact opportunities have emerged, including access to networks, platforms for policy and public engagement, or even providing support to establish diverse partnerships with education ecosystem players.

A Shift from Linear Models to Systemic Health

Systemic efforts are complex, messy and non-linear, with multiple forces contributing to their success or failure. As such, they require funders to have a broader toolkit of monitoring and evaluation, one that goes beyond neat linear models and reflects the complexity of the education research system. Rather than providing funding for predefined tasks and outputs, funders can emphasize outcomes and milestones built on the researcher’s envisioned systems change.

In the words of the late Archbisop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river — we need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

Giant leaps forward are needed to be taken to reach an upstream support system for Surum and thousands like her. The ideas described here are not intended as blueprints or models; rather, they are the first few steps in embracing funding practices that are aligned with systems change and challenging the stark inequalities that exist. Only then can we produce the knowledge and solutions needed to transform the lives of young learners and the future of the African continent.

Abdelrahman Hassan  is an Investment Associate at Imaginable Futures based in Kenya.

Shikha Goyal  is a Venture Partner at Imaginable Futures, based in the UK. She leads in their strategy and investments across Africa

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